Sometimes, affirmative action seems like an imposition or a grant, drawing moral satisfaction from the tokenism of doing the right thing. Rarely is it thoughtful or felt. This is why last week’s announcement by the National Health Services (NHS) in the UK that menopausal women on their staff will be able to work out of the home should their symptoms require it, is about path-finding and working the middle ground in the workplace. NHS chief Amanda Pritchard said that other employers should follow suit to help middle-aged women “thrive” at work and those “silently suffering” should not be expected to “grin and bear it.”
If nothing, such a move has at least been a conversation starter about what has been so far a taboo in the workplace and a reason to “hive off” women than allow them ease of “thriving” Yet, just like pregnancy, the end of a woman’s reproductive cycle is seen as her losing energy, drive, desire, stamina, excitement and capability, in short, a cliff-jumping drop of her value in wisdom and experience. Ironically, this phase, between the mid-40s to the mid-50s, is where you would find most women reaching the top, having battled biases of motherhood, working Sundays to meet deadlines, leaving no questions unanswered on their competence and commitment. And yet when a woman employee crosses the age bar, she has to prove her worth all over again. Is she as good, is she capable of thinking afresh, can she pull long hours? It is never about “is she comfortable?” Sadly, her body of work matters little. And it is this constant pressure to feed expectations that forces even confident women to overwork themselves to stay relevant despite those painful bouts of endometriosis, heavy bleeding, hot flushes, insomnia, fatigue, anxiety, hypertension and palpitations. All of these are terribly debilitating but manageable with a little breathing space.
Physiologically speaking, menopause exposes women to their most severe and unexpected health challenges. As the hormone oestrogen dips, it pushes up bad cholesterol or LDL levels, raising their cardiac risk more than men. They even have higher concentrations of total cholesterol than men. According to the Harvard Medical School, a post-menopausal woman’s symptoms of a heart attack are “different from a man’s and she’s much more likely than a man to die within a year of having a heart attack. Women also don’t seem to fare as well as men do after taking clot-busting drugs or undergoing certain heart-related medical procedures.”
These elevated risk factors, however, can be reduced if women were to be less stressed about tiring out their bodies to prove a point. Strangely even women in the menopausal period are not concerned about their life risks as they get caught in the vanity trap and worry more about issues related to their body image, sexuality and self-esteem. Some rush into Menopausal Hormone Therapy (MHT), which is not quite the elixir of youth, and often has deadly side effects like uterine and breast cancer.
Women with endometriosis often have to take of leave of absence because of heavy bleeding that affects their productivity. Author Hilary Mantel described it as “not life-threatening but life-destroying,” one that disqualified her from a 9-5 office job that “narrowed my options in life, and it narrowed them to writing.”
So, the question of gender equity really comes from respecting changes in a woman’s body as much as a man’s. And as many 50-plus start-up owners, women included, become the subject of business reviews, it has been proven that a great idea needs focus, determination, experience, skill and smart application, all functions of the mind really.
However, in India, where motherhood is seen as a major career impediment for women, menopause is a far cry, often bottled up in hushed conversations among women in the office loo. But some countries have at least acknowledged it as a workplace health issue. The UK Parliament commissioned a survey that showed how one in three women were missing work due to menopause. Italy and Australia are debating about including menopause in work ethics norms. In January, the EU Parliament put out a statement, saying, “The failure to address menopause as a workplace issue is increasingly leading to insufficient protection of female workers and the early exit of women from labour markets, and thereby increasing the risk of women’s economic dependence, poverty and social exclusion, contributing to the loss of women’s knowledge, skills and experience, and leading to significant economic losses.”
Considering that women will go through this biological phase at least for eight years in their work life, a little sensitivity to their concerns would matter more than a debate on whether they should be “allowed extra benefits”.